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Aspire One 751 vs. Gateway LT3103

Battle at 11.6"

I've gotta admit, I've been waiting for this. I've been a fan of the netbook concept nearly from the beginning. Cheap, highly portable computing is something I tend to appreciate. Netbooks really were a little too Lilliputian at the outset, with 7" screens surrounded by massive bezels. But they've grown since then to 9" and then 10" display sizes, while holding prices under the magical $400 mark. Every step of the way, they've become more appealing.

About a year ago, I decided I couldn't hold out any longer and bought myself an Eee PC 1000H to see how it would serve my needs. Turns out the answer is mixed: I love the portability, long battery life, and full feature set of the 1000H, and I have few complaints about its performance for my purposes. I can even live with the keyboard, although the itsy bitsy keys do make for some tedious moments. But the 10", 1024x600 display is a killer sticking point. Although that resolution is wide enough to accommodate most web pages, there's not a pixel to spare, and the vertical space will force you to scroll like a Talmudic rabbi. Due largely to this one fault, my Eee PC 1000H has failed to replace my main 13.3" laptop for everyday mobile use.

Acer's Aspire One 751h

I'm positively beside myself, then, about the potential for a new class of laptops with 11.6" displays. The first one to hit store shelves was the Acer Aspire One 751. I visited my local Walmart to get a look at one and wound up coming home with a box tucked under my arm. Not long after that, the Gateway LT3103 made its way into Best Buy, and the process repeated itself.

Gateway's LT3103u

Ok, so I am not entirely rational about these little machines. Something about packing more power than some of the seminal computers from my fairly recent past into a package this tiny strikes a chord in me. But the Aspire One 751 and the Gateway LT3103 also present an intriguing dilemma. They're similar in many ways┬Śno surprise since Acer owns the Gateway brand. They share the same display, keyboard, basic feature set, and price. Yet the Aspire One emphasizes low power, quiet operation, and sleekness, while the Gateway trends in the opposite direction, packing a little more CPU and GPU power than the average netbook. The contrast is starker than you might imagine, due to some unconventional platform choices on Acer's part. The question is: which one is right for me?

That's my top question, anyway.

I suppose you might be wondering which one is right for you. I'm not so sure about that, but I'll let you peek in as I search for answers.

One Aspire to rule them all?

The Aspire One 751 feels like the slimmest netbook I've ever handled. Acer rates it at an inch thick, which is fairly accurate, but that doesn't capture the whole picture. With the three-cell battery installed, the 751 has few bulges across its body and sits flat on a tabletop. Its profile is truly low, and thus, this sleek system has that effortless feel of truly advanced technology.

This feel is enhanced by other facets of the 751's design: the keyboard pushed out to the very edges of the chassis, the relatively minimal bezel around the screen, and especially the utter lack of exhaust vents on the sides of the system┬Ścomplemented by the absence of perceptible noise emanating from the thing. On first glance, the 751 feels more like a grown-up iPhone than a slightly wider-than-average netbook.

Then again, there's a perfectly good reason for that, and it's revealed in the 751's spec sheet, which I've replicated below.

Model Acer Aspire One 751h
Processor Intel Atom Z520 processor at 1.24GHz with 496 MT/s FSB
Memory 2GB DDR2-667 (1 DIMM)
Chipset Intel US15W SCH
Graphics Intel GMA 500
Display 11.6" TFT with WXGA (1366x768) resolution and LED backlight
Storage Seagate Momentus 5400.6 250GB 2.5" 5400 RPM SATA 3Gbps hard drive
Audio Stereo HD Audio via Realtek codec
Ports 3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet via Realtek controller
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
Expansion slots 1 SD/MMC/Memory Stick/xD
Communications 802.11b/g Wi-Fi via Atheros AR5007EG
Input devices Keyboard
Synaptics touchpad with multi-gesture support
Internal microphone
Camera 0.3 megapixel webcam
Dimensions 11.2" x 7.8" x 1.0" (284 mm x 198 mm x 25.4 mm)
Weight 2.8 lbs (1.27 kg) with 3-cell battery
3.0 lbs (1.36 kg) with 6-cell battery
Battery 3-cell Li-Ion 2200 mAh
6-cell Li-Ion 5200 mAh

I bought my 751h in the configuration listed above, though only with the three-cell battery, for $398 at Walmart. That's a nice price for a premium netbook with this this sort of hardware payload, including 2GB of RAM and a 250GB, 5,400-RPM hard drive. Mine came with Windows Vista Home Basic installed, as well.

As you may have noted if you have a keen eye, the Aspire One 751 does not use the ever-so-omnipresent Standard Netbook Platform consisting of an N-series Atom processor and a Intel 945G chipset. Instead, Acer has chosen a lower-power Atom platform, code-named Menlow during its development, which Intel has positioned as a good choice for so-called mobile Internet devices (MIDs), GPS receivers, and yes, perhaps even large-ish smart phones.

For the unfamiliar, we covered the Menlow platform and its US15W "Poulsbo" System Controller Hub in some detail in our initial write-up of the Atom processor. (I think Intel saw more potential in Menlow than in Diamondville, the netbook/nettop platform, at that time, although things haven't quite worked out that way.) Unlike the 945G, Poulsbo is a single-chip solution with an integrated memory controller, graphics, and I/O hub, along with a relatively modest max power draw rating of 2.3W.

Given the chipset's intended mission, it's no surprise the US15W lacks some frills, among them support for SATA devices. Presumably, Acer had to use an IDE-to-SATA adapter to accommodate a newer hard drive in the 751. More interestingly, the graphics processor in the US15W may be branded the Intel GMA 500, but it's really technology licensed from Imagination Technologies, the PowerVR guys, whose graphics tech also powers the iPhone. The downsides of this GPU core are straightforward: it has less raw power than the 945G and isn't as broadly supported by games and other apps. The upsides of this newer GPU design are quite evident, too, though: the GMA 500 supports the proper texture formats for the Windows Aero scheme, and unlike the 945G, it can accelerate the decoding of HD video formats.

Acer has paired this MID-oriented chipset with an Atom Z520 processor, whose 1.3GHz default clock speed won't exactly strike fear in the heart of the Eee PC 1000HE or other market-leading netbooks. Worse yet, Acer chose to down-clock the Z520 to 1.24GHz on a 124MHz (496 MT/s) front-side bus, sapping a little more of the Atom's limited potency. The good news is that the Atom Z520 has a max TDP of only 2W, which helps make the 751 a slim, silent system. But it lacks punch, even on paper.

No doubt the MID platform's low power draw is what prompted Acer to ship the 751h to various discount stores in configurations that include a relatively weak 2200 mAh, three-cell battery. Treat it well, and you can coax nearly four hours out of that power source with a 751. Treat it poorly, and, well, you'll want to check the results of our battery life tests, which include both the three-cell and available six-cell options.

Two other highlights of the 751's specs sheet are omissions: the Wi-Fi adapter doesn't support the latest 802.11n standard, and although there's a hotkey embossed on the keyboard to enable and disable Bluetooth, at least this configuration of the 751 doesn't include Bluetooth support. I'd gladly pay an extra 50 bucks for these two features, but perhaps I am not your typical Walmart shopper.